28 May 2019 | | GQ
The first thing I want to talk to Bob Weir about is the dead.
Not the Dead, but the departed. The deceased. The ex-Dead, of which there are now as many as there once were Grateful Dead members—an entire shadow band, albeit made up entirely of keyboardists, plus one notable guitar.
Pigpen. Keith. Brent. Vince.
And, of course, Jerry. This is not to mention all the other compatriots and family members lost along the way. Death surrounded this band, and death suffused its music—a mournful leitmotif that’s inescapable once you release whatever preconceptions you might have about peace, love, and dancing bears.
“You reach a certain age and you’re going to have lost some friends,” Weir says. Perhaps so, but for him that age was around 20.
We’re sitting on his tour bus, a shiny black monolithic slab, which is parked on the street in New Orleans. Outside is the Fillmore theater, a venue named for the San Francisco concert hall synonymous with the psychedelic explosion of the Grateful Dead’s earliest days, now a chain owned by Live Nation, with this branch located in Harrah’s casino.
In a few hours, he’d be going onstage with the band he’s calling Bob Weir & Wolf Bros, a trio that includes the legendary producer Don Was on stand-up bass and Jay Lane—a veteran of several post-Jerry Garcia Grateful Dead variations, as well as Primus—on drums. The band played in Austin the day before and then drove through the night, Weir sleeping in a comfy-looking bunk in back as Texas and western Louisiana rolled by a few feet beneath.
Weir sits in one of the bus’s leather armchairs, wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and an Apple Watch with two silver skull-and-crossbones studs on the black band. Cross-legged and barefoot, he looks top-of-the-mountain wise, largely on account of the profusion of whiskers that has taken over his face, from neck to cheekbone, like rosebushes gone wild on the side of an abandoned house.
Add in bushy eyebrows and a luminous crown of white hair and other metaphors suggest themselves: Lorax, gold-mad Western sidekick, holy guru, homemade Albert Einstein costume… Weir prefers “Civil War cavalry colonel” to describe what he saw in the mirror one morning after not shaving for a few weeks on tour. Sometime later, he saw a photo of an ancestor. “He had a full-on Yosemite Sam mustache. I said to myself, ‘That’s a look that’s fallen from favor for the past 150 years or so. I’m just the guy to bring it back.’ ” It is possible that Weir’s tongue is in his cheek, but it is hard to tell. On account of all the beard.
Dreams figure in a lot of Weir’s stories. He takes them seriously. Wolf Bros arrived that way: “I dreamed that Don was playing upright and that Jay was playing drums and we were called Wolf Bros.” Not a lot of interpretive heavy lifting required there. Afraid he would lose his nerve, he called Was immediately to pitch the idea.
At 66, Was, one of the great musical Zeligs of the past three decades, is not an unbusy man, having produced for everybody from Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones to Ziggy Marley and John Mayer. (He introduced Weir and Mayer, leading to the latest and biggest post-Dead iteration, Dead & Company.) He also happens to be the president of Blue Note Records. Nevertheless he was convinced enough to pick up his bass and hit the road. Backstage, before the New Orleans show, he puts it flatly:
“This is the greatest thing I’ve ever been involved in. I feel like I was born to do this. I wish it could go on forever.”
Wolf Bros plays stripped-down versions of Grateful Dead and Dead-adjacent songs. Dead & Company may be filling arenas and festival crowds with fans born long after the Grateful Dead disbanded, but this audience is decidedly older.
There seems to be one representative of each crowd subgroup I remember from Dead shows in the late 1980s: one perpetually spinning guy, one hand-dancing guy, a gaggle of baseball-cap-wearing dudes playing air guitar, another of girls tripping their faces off. Near the bathrooms, I catch the familiar sight of a guy crouched and leaning against the wall, head cradled in his hands. On closer inspection, he’s just charging his phone.
The trio takes the stage and kicks into the slowed-down chugging groove of “The Music Never Stopped.” In the golden era of the Grateful Dead, the exalted state was to operate without planned set lists; Weir and Garcia generally alternated songs, and while Garcia sang, Weir might start inserting licks for the next number, trusting his bandmates to be listening closely enough to follow along. Weir would like Wolf Bros to reach that level of synergy, but for now its set lists are put together by a worried-looking man named Matt Busch, who is one of Weir’s managers and whom Weir extensively trained for this purpose.
The day before each show, Busch sits down in front of three spreadsheets: one a master list of all the songs the band knows, another showing recent set lists, and a third that breaks the songs down by lyrics, musical keys, beats per minute, and other factors. Among the innumerable considerations he then needs to keep in mind: no repeated songs within three shows; songs that belong in specific slots—opener, first set, encores, etc.; lyrics that name-check the city they happen to be in. Each set list takes Busch between four and six hours to put together. It is not lost on Busch that Deadheads pore over set lists with the intensity usually reserved for Talmudic texts.
“I try to tell myself that it’s how they play, not what they play, that matters,” Busch says. “But maybe I’m just trying to feel less pressure.”
Tonight the band moves into a song from Weir’s 2016 album, Blue Mountain, recorded with members of the National, and “Peggy-O,” a traditional ballad oft-played by the Grateful Dead. It’s hard not to be struck once more by the almost vaudevillian vision of agedness into which Weir has transformed himself.
If that seems like too much attention to pay to a bit of facial hair, consider: The man was youth itself! First, that blissed-out, androgynous, beautiful open face—a stand-in for all the teenage boys and girls who had run away from home and headed for the Haight.
Weir was 16 years old when he wandered down the right alley in Palo Alto on New Year’s Eve 1963 and heard the sound of a banjo that turned out to be played by 21-year-old Jerry Garcia. When the band that would become the Grateful Dead started providing sound accompaniment to Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, Weir’s nickname was literally the Kid.
“We were all kids, but he was really the Kid!” says Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. (Nearly everything Hart says, he says with an implied exclamation point.) “Jerry felt protective of him. We all did. After a while he didn’t like that anymore, but he needed it. He needed brotherhood, and we were the only brothers around!” Even now, Weir says, he sometimes gets the feeling that the other members of the band don’t quite take him seriously.
“That’s my role. It’s ingrained,” he says. “But being the Kid also gave me a certain freedom.”
He used that freedom. Weir was seemingly the only member of the Grateful Dead concerned with the traditional prerogatives of rock ‘n’ roll stardom. Bobby! In his pink shirts and short shorts, he was the preener, the howler, the only guy up there (at least once Pigpen had departed) who projected the barest suggestion of rock’s sexual aggression.
With preternatural confidence, or just blitheness, he took on songs you might have thought he had no business getting within sniffing distance of, the best songs America has produced: Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,” whole swaths of Bob Dylan’s catalog, deep-Delta numbers, like “Little Red Rooster,” that he attacked with all the puffed-up swagger of a man with way more blues under his belt.
And of course he spent 30 years standing next to Father Time himself. In a genre devoted to living forever, Jerry Garcia started singing songs about laying his weary bones down by the riverside before he was 30.
Despite ample evidence of his human qualities, Garcia became the band’s supernatural paternal figure, the dispenser of comfort to a generation that had probably left home too soon and—like a toddler who streaks away from its parents only to freeze halfway across the floor—found itself stranded. (Count the classic-rock songs that share the refrain It’s all right.) In this, Weir—who grew up with adoptive parents and for whom the Dead was explicitly a surrogate family—was both band and audience.
Not that it was fair. Buddy acts rarely are—especially when one buddy quits the scene early. After all, Weir wrote or sang half of the Grateful Dead’s repertoire, including some of the band’s most iconic songs: “Sugar Magnolia,” “Playing in the Band,” “Truckin’,” and dozens more. He is a living piece of musical and countercultural history, for starters one of the few humans to have been on the bill at the Mythologized Boomer Trifecta of the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock, and Altamont. Kesey gave him acid; Neal Cassady gave him driving lessons; the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi gave him the mantra he still uses to meditate daily.
Ask Weir to reel off some New Orleans adventures and you’ll get not only the famous 1970 Bourbon Street drug bust, immortalized in “Truckin’,” but a much later surreal adventure involving a crawfish boil at Aaron Neville’s house and tearing up the French Quarter with the Bangles, who happened to be in town opening for George Michael. There are certain phrases one resolves not to use when one begins writing a Bob Weir profile, but I don’t think I need to spell out what length the trip has been, or its relative strangeness.
As for “Little Red Rooster,” he muses, “Am I a bluesman? I don’t know. My friend Willie Dixon seemed to like the way I played.” Which, you know, is a pretty good argument.
In any event, there’s scant evidence of the Kid onstage with Wolf Bros. In the revealing, pared-down setting of a trio, Weir’s instrument and his voice are both front and center and in command. He has always had a messianic bent (“Standing on a tower / World at my command,” “Prophet on the burning shore,” and all that), but these days he sings with an almost Pentecostal authority. What may have once seemed like affectations now feel hard-earned. All playing is storytelling, he tells me later, even the instrumental parts: “And I believe everything all the characters say.”
He stepped into me. The encore tonight is “Touch of Grey,” the Dead’s ultimate song of generational soothing, and to watch Weir sing it with the gruff-voiced, confident poignancy of a 71-year-old is to come to one more, inevitable conclusion about that beard: that the man who may have once fantasized about escaping via invisible paint has, instead, gathered strength and power and wholeness from dissolving the buddy act for good and merging with Jerry Garcia.
It hasn’t quite been as many years since Garcia died as the Grateful Dead was a band before that, but the gap is quickly closing. For nearly all that time, Weir has been on the road, with various combinations of the band’s surviving members—the Dead, the Other Ones, Furthur, now Dead & Company—and with his own outfits.
All of these have earnestly pursued the kind of improvisational, boundary-pushing group-playing for which the original Grateful Dead were both famous and infamous. That might make your heart race or your teeth itch, but there’s no question that it is an extraordinary commitment to a high-stakes, high-risk creative project at a time when he could be content to roll out greatest-hits tours or just stay home.
In the meantime, improbably, the cultural currency of the Grateful Dead has only risen. The band’s supposed final Fare Thee Well shows in California and Chicago in 2015, for which Phish’s Trey Anastasio took over lead-guitar duties, became a national phenomenon.
Then came Dead & Company, which has restarted the Deadhead engine in a way that few could have anticipated: filling stadiums with fans who weren’t born when the Grateful Dead disbanded while also pleasing older Heads who had every reason to be skeptical.
The band—which includes Hart and fellow Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, Mayer on lead guitar, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, and bassist Oteil Burbridge—launch a 19-date tour on May 31. From the parking lots to the phone lines of “Tales from the Golden Road,” a weekly call-in show on Sirius XM’s Grateful Dead channel, the consensus is that they have transcended the bounds of a nostalgia act to become a living evolution of the Grateful Dead—the most vital incarnation since Garcia’s departure.
There is also an entire ecosystem of Dead cover bands, like Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (known as JRAD) and Dark Star Orchestra, that themselves have successful touring careers. Designers from Proenza Schouler to Off-White to James Perse have woven Dead iconography into their products.
Perse—whose earliest fashion experience was selling bootleg caps in the parking lots of Dead shows and who now offers a $3,000 cashmere Steal Your Face blanket, among other items—is a good example of the truism that Deadheads are everywhere. It can get spooky: I sent a recording of one of my conversations with Weir to be anonymously transcribed, with no names attached, and it came back with Weir’s responses labeled “Bobby,” which I took to be a finger-to-the-side-of-the-nose from a fellow traveler. When I later went to meet Weir in Nashville, I became half-convinced that the elevator chime in my hotel consisted of the opening chords to “St. Stephen.” And why not? Elevator sound designers have pasts, too.
“There’s so much going on in this world of ours, and Bob kind of sits at the nexus of it all,” says Andy Bernstein, the co-founder and executive director of HeadCount, the voter-registration organization of which Weir is a board member, and which has leveraged the strength of the jam-band community into nearly half a million newly registered voters. “And he does it so unassumingly, with the least entitlement of any musician I’ve ever seen at remotely his level, and with no seeming agenda other than to live out his life in a fulfilling way.”
“My whole life is constantly trying to shove ten pounds of rats into a five-pound bag,” Weir says.
It’s a week later, and he’s sitting in the back of an Escalade making its way through Nashville traffic. He is, if anything, understating things, rat-wise. Among the many projects in which Weir is simultaneously involved are Dead & Company; Wolf Bros; an opera based on the Native American myth of Coyote; a symphonic cycle; and a narrative TV series based on the memoir of longtime Grateful Dead roadie and raconteur Steve Parish that involves Parish, Weir, Garcia, and a batch of Owsley Stanley acid that somehow functions as the dimension-shifting chrono-synclastic infundibulum from Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan.
He is especially excited about an idea for a Mexican poncho (or perhaps it’s a serape) that has pockets, inspired by a garment he was given by a Oaxacan textile collective while performing at Dead & Company’s Playing in the Sand festival in Riviera Maya last year: “It’s warm when you want to be warm, cool when you want to be cool. It’s the kind of thing that if you get a nice one, you wear a suit and tie with it and go to a cool restaurant and you’re going to get in.” This might be pure genius or Lebowski-like fantasy, but in any event James Perse is actually making the damn thing. They should be available at Dead & Company shows this summer.
The studios and offices of Music Row float past the windows. There was a time when Nashville was perceived as the cultural enemy camp to everything the Grateful Dead represented—the square, short-haired antithesis of exuberant San Francisco—but Weir never bought into that dichotomy. “Nashville musicians were fairly legendary amongst the hippie-musician crowd, despite the fact that country music wasn’t considered all that hip,” he says. “Jerry and I wouldn’t miss Porter Wagoner’s show. We were huge fans of George Jones and, of course, Dolly Parton. We didn’t have chops like those guys.” On Weir’s feet are leather Birkenstocks covered with doodles drawn by Manuel Cuevas, the designer who has made rhinestone suits for country’s biggest stars.
Even before the Dead’s legendary pair of 1970 proto-Americana albums, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, Weir was slipping his “cowboy songs” in among the band’s experimental jams. He came by the voice honestly. Growing up in a suburb of San Francisco, he would take summer trips with his family to a ranch in Squaw Valley, where Weir would hang out in the livery stable with cowhands—remnants of a disappearing California that still resembled Oklahoma more than L.A. or San Francisco.
Later he would spend summers working at the Wyoming ranch of school friend John Perry Barlow, who would go on to be his primary songwriting partner. Weir claims to still be able to cut cattle on horseback, if it comes to that: “A cow pony actually does all the work for you. You have to let him know which calf or which group to herd, and he knows what to do. You just watch his ears.”
This afternoon, the first order of business is checking out a new bus he’s hoping to have custom-built by the time Dead & Company hit the road. A welcoming committee is waiting at the headquarters of Pioneer Coach. (“Rock. Roll. Relax.” reads the company motto.) Weir’s bus driver for the past dozen years, Frank Huebscher, introduces him to the bus-design team, and he is ushered into a conference room.
A blueprint of the new bus is projected on the wall, and a designer walks him through various features, like a butcher-block kitchen island that turns into a bunk when Weir’s two daughters, who are 17 and 21, join him on tour. He asks whether the bucket jump seat can be left with its back open to the rest of the bus, rather than being walled off in the driver’s compartment, and if the whole bus can be wired for Apple TV. Notes are made.
Weir is handed off to a woman named Lucinda, who is in charge of interior design. She takes him to a room filled with fabric swatches, carpet samples, tiles, and other design accoutrements.
“So, Bob, how do you like your bus to feel? Is it calm and peaceful? Is it rock ‘n’ roll?” Lucinda asks.
“Calm and peaceful,” says Weir. “Cozy.”
She pulls out samples for each element that will need to be decided: wall panels, countertops, bunk curtains, flooring. Weir plops himself down cross-legged in the center of the floor and considers the pile of options.
“For the carpet, do you want it shaggy or do you want something lower?” asks Lucinda. He chooses the former. “I spend a lot of time barefoot,” he says. He works his way through the decisions deliberately but quickly, making a choice and then moving on without looking back. The process is all wrapped up in 15 minutes. Lucinda is amazed. “You get these 20-year-olds coming in and we’re here all day,” she says.
We head out to the construction bay to see the actual bus in progress. It’s a 45-foot-long monster, with two side extensions that can be popped out for extra room when parked. The interior is gutted, with plywood floors and naked fiberglass contours. A man is hunched in one of the luggage bays, installing a vast web of electrical wires. Huebscher, the driver, shows Weir a spot in another bay, where his bin of workout gear will go. Lucinda trails behind with her clipboard and one more question about the cabinet pulls: Brass or brushed nickel? “Nickel will be fine,” Weir says.
Followers of Weir’s Twitter feed will be familiar with why his workout gear might require its own compartment. Videos regularly posted there show Weir, invariably wearing sneakers with glove-like toe slots, laboring with various devices seemingly transported from the pre-modern age of Physical Culture, most notably a set of three-foot-long maces topped with 10-, 15-, and 20-pound steel balls, meant to be swung in an elaborate series of fluid figures.
Weir has always been a bit of a jock: He was a high school sprinter and played a regular pickup game of flag football near his home in Marin for years. Regular exercise is one of what he calls his “Three Pillars of Happiness,” the others being daily meditation and “the constant pursuit of purpose.”
The mace-wielding regimen has extra significance. Weir sees it as the key to treating a back condition that once threatened to derail his playing career in more ways than one. Weir has suggested that, after more than 50 years of near constant touring, he has spent more time onstage with a guitar than any human in history. Allowing for the possibility of some unknown hero who has taken the stage at a honky-tonk or Holiday Inn every night for the past half-century, it’s a plausible claim.
“This motion”—he mimics strumming a guitar—“this one limited motion, repeated a million times, has turned my right rhomboid muscle into a strip of gristle that gets extremely painful after a couple of hours, to the point where it’s like trying to play with an ice pick in your back. I went to doctors. I went to physical therapists. But the only thing that really worked was opiates, and so I got good and strung out on them. I would have to come home and go through withdrawal after every tour.”
He’s always used alcohol, too—wine, in particular—to combat stage fright, a condition he says he shared with Garcia. “Every night, before I go on, it’s I can’t believe I put myself in this position again. Thousands of times.” He is so self-conscious about his playing before warming up that he needs to do so in solitude.
Weir’s struggles became publicly apparent in 2013, when he collapsed onstage with Furthur. The next year, RatDog called off an entire tour. Today he is, to all appearances, healthy. He has replaced a drink before getting onstage with a shot of ginseng and, for the most part, pharmaceutical painkillers with herbal supplements. But he stops short of saying he’s sober.
“I’ve tried that, and I’m not as happy as when I drink,” he says. He is adamant that he is able to have a glass of wine these days and stop there. Likewise, the occasional painkiller when the exercise and herbal remedies prove inadequate.
“There was a time, way back, when getting trashed and completely nuts was, I felt, my best approach to the blank page—which is a horrifying prospect in and of itself,” he says. “But I’ve been there and done that, and I don’t think there is anything more to be found there for me. What I want now is to be in the same frame of mind when I wake up in the morning as when I went to bed. That’s pretty much how I operate.”
This flies in the face of conventional thinking about how addiction works, but Weir says he’s not cut out for traditional 12-step programs. “I’m not sure I buy the basic tenet, which is that you’re powerless,” he says. “I think that we humans are enormously powerful, and I tend to think there’s nothing that you can’t do. It’s a matter of self-mastery, and if self-mastery amounts to total abstinence, I think that’s incomplete. I think you’re selling yourself short. But I get that that’s real dangerous for some people. So I don’t talk about it much.”
I had heard that backstage at Dead & Company was a designated dry area, but Weir says otherwise. “I don’t require the people around me to accept a bunch of limitations that I may or may not need,” he says. “If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it. If I’m not gonna drink, then I’m not gonna drink. If I’m not gonna take drugs, then I’m not gonna take drugs, and I don’t need to force that on other people. It’s kind of like hammering people with religion. I don’t think it’s my right to do that.”
For all of the lingering association of the Grateful Dead with acid, Weir says he never liked tripping all that much. “It was pretty scary for me. It opened me up to stuff I just wasn’t ready for,” he says. “LSD was something of a calling for us, but I think we tended to make more of it than it really amounted to. Being profoundly disoriented in concert with a bunch of my cohorts was a grand little adventure, but we were on an adventure anyway.
The fact that we were together, and we were making music, making art, and creating a new, a fresh way of looking at the world, was much more important and much more central to what we were up to than any kind of medication.” The last times he took acid willingly, he says, were way back in 1966, willingly being an important qualifier because for years afterward, he says, “it was everybody’s favorite sport to try and dose Bobby.” (“Everybody was dosing everybody!” Mickey Hart helpfully clarifies.)
In reality, cocaine and heroin were the dominant drugs for most of the Grateful Dead’s history. Weir tried heroin with Garcia, but it somehow failed to sink its teeth into Weir in the same way it did his friend. “I’ve wondered about that a lot: How come this bullet with his name on it wasn’t a bullet with my name on it?” he says. “We weren’t that different. But I guess I knew that, like with this pain in my back, I was going to beat it. I’m an optimist, and I’m not sure Jerry was all that optimistic.”
In New Orleans, Weir had told me a story to illustrate how, by the end, addiction and the pressures of fame had conspired to shrink Garcia’s life.
“One time we came here after a long absence, and our publicist, who was also a good friend, asked Jerry how was it getting back to New Orleans, because it’s such a great music town,” he said. “Jerry’s answer was, ‘Well, one hotel’s the same as another.’ That was pretty much the life he was given.”
We sat there for a few moments, listening to the bus’s air-conditioning hum, sunlight peeking in around the edges of the blackout curtains.
“Yeah, well,” Weir said dryly, “I don’t get out much, either.”
“I don’t much like travel,” he says later. “It’s endurable.” At TRI Studios, his “spaceship” of a recording headquarters in Marin County, he pioneered webcasting live performances, which seemed like a stab at finding a way to perform without hitting the road—though it proved ahead of its time. He concedes that a more sedentary life would make it easier to pursue the many other projects vying for his attention, but playing live is, for him, non-negotiable: “That’s the gig. That’s what I’m here for. I’m here to light people up.”
One morning I meet Weir in his Nashville hotel suite. There are three guitars leaning against a wall in the living area, a cowboy hat and a serape flung across a chair. Last night he had an initial songwriting meeting with the great John Prine, a get-acquainted session, and this afternoon the two are getting together again to hopefully write some material for Weir to take into the studio with Wolf Bros.
In preparation, he wants to go through a folder he keeps on his phone containing bits and pieces—“shards,” he calls them—of musical inspiration. “These won’t mean anything to anybody but me,” he says apologetically. There are bits of strumming, fragments of Wolf Bros jams and sound checks, a few seconds of humming here, a short burst of jazz recorded from the radio there. Weir listens with his head cocked, holding his guitar but not playing, except for walking one index finger up the frets—ever so gently pressing on each pearlescent dot—in time with what he’s hearing.
“I’ve always known a song was a critter,” he says after a while. “A new one comes through the door and I want to check it out. I want to sniff its butt, and I want it to sniff mine. Jerry came to me in a dream not long ago and introduced a song to me. It was kind of protoplasmic—you could see right through it—but it was like a great big sheepdog. And he just confirmed to me what I always suspected: that a song is a living organism.”
There is a sequence in the 2014 documentary The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir in which various musical admirers struggle to describe Weir’s style of rhythm guitar, falling back on such terms as “unique,” “unusual,” and “strange.” It would be easy to conclude that these were euphemisms, but it’s apparently not so. When I ask Don Was about it, he is silent for several seconds.
“I’ve spent hundred of hours focused on him in the past few months, and he’s still absolutely enigmatic to me,” Was says. “He’s part Segovia and part John Lee Hooker, and he does both simultaneously—this exotic blend of the raw and the cerebral. He obliterates the lines between rhythm guitar and lead guitar. He doesn’t just bash out chords—his rhythm parts are really melodic, so they also serve as lead parts. Sometimes I think there’s a second guitarist sitting in, because he can also play separate lead lines and rhythm parts at the same time.”
This is reminiscent of Weir’s description of his lifelong dyslexia, how words on the page, as he tells it, refuse to hold their shape and meaning, threatening always to go off in some new direction. “I let my brain run, I guess. I let it go and have more freedom than some folks do,” he says. “So if I’m reading a word, there are innumerable considerations to take into account about what I just read.”
According to Mickey Hart, “He became totally unique because he was in a band that was totally unique! Remember that Bobby had to play under the shadow of Jerry. It was a benevolent shadow, but that was challenging. Once Jerry got cranked up, he could really take a band away. So Bob had to learn a new way of playing. He had to re-invent himself as this partner, this other side to Jerry. He started playing strange.”
“I derived a lot of what I do on guitar from listening to piano players,” Weir says, citing McCoy Tyner’s work with John Coltrane in particular. “He would constantly nudge and coax amazing stuff out of Coltrane.”
He says Garcia is still present when he plays. “I can hear him: ‘Don’t go there. Don’t go there,’ or ‘Go here. Go here.’ And either I listen or I don’t, depending on how I’m feeling. But it’s always ‘How’s old Jerry going to feel about this riff?’ Sometimes I know he’d hate it. But he’d adjust.”
If there’s a complaint these days about Weir’s music, it’s that he favors playing the Dead repertoire too slowly for some fans’ tastes. One Internet wag recently suggested listening to Dead & Company recordings at 1.5-times speed.
“I’m looking for the most possible harmonic content from the string,” Weir says. “To get that, you have to be able to hang a note and let it change colors for you, because it will if you let it.… I love to listen to the sound of my fucking instrument. I don’t play the guitar for no reason. There’s so many things you can do with it. But you can’t do them quickly. At least I haven’t been able to figure out how to.”
There is only one other subject in our conversations that sparks Weir to, if not quite anger, at least defiance: the question of whether he should be playing the songs that Garcia once sang. Immediately after Garcia’s death, he felt emotionally unprepared to do so, but “six months or a year in, it became real apparent that these songs needed to live and breathe.” There are fans, he knows, who take exception. “There are some folks who don’t particularly like the cut of my jib, who feel that no one has the right to sing those songs.”
What is his answer to those people? Weir shrugs and throws open his hands in a gesture of futility:
“Don’t come to my shows.”
The last thing I end up talking to Bob Weir about is living.
He’s back in California, in his cottage in Stinson Beach. A dog howls in the background. It’s a time to regroup, away from the grind and tunnel vision of touring. Soon enough he’ll pull out recordings of Dead & Company with his own guitar and vocal tracks stripped out and start practicing to get back on the road. It seems obvious that Dead & Company belongs to him in a vital way, that it’s his band. He sticks to what he calls “the company line”: that such hierarchical hang-ups are beside the point and that the collective band will always follow whoever has the goods at any given moment.
“John Boy”—as he calls Mayer—“keeps informing me that I’m the paterfamilias,” he says. “Well, the paterfamilias is still the Kid.”
And why not take him at his word? More than a half-century has proved there’s no profit in the temptation to be cynical about the Grateful Dead’s tenets, no matter how idealistic or earnest. They’ve all turned out to be true. At least as pertains to the art itself, which is all that matters, according to Weir.
Above all, the lesson he continues to embody is this: Always be becoming. Don’t lie down by the riverside after all, but thrust ever forward. That’s the idea behind the jamming, whether it soars or thuds on any given night. It’s why he hasn’t finished a long-overdue memoir; how can you sum up a life with so much still going on? It’s why he says he hasn’t gotten some songs quite right yet, though he remains cautiously optimistic. “Saint of Circumstance,” for instance. “I’m just starting to scratch the surface of what I can do with that,” he says, which is understandable: The Internet tells me he’s played it live only 430 times.
“The Grateful Dead was a process,” he says. “It was chaotic, until it wasn’t. Those were the golden moments. That was our M.O., and that’s how it’s supposed to be.
“After Jerry checked out, I had a lot of shopping to do, with regard to what I wanted to do next. It took me a long time to get that sized up—what threads of all the stuff I wanted to explore I was going to weave together. And I seem like I’m kind of getting there now—though I’ve got mixed feelings about it, because I wish there was more. I wish I could say there was more. But I was starting to get the feeling that now is the time to get rolling. So here I am.”
Brett Martin is a GQ correspondent.
A version of this story originally appeared in the June/July 2019 issue with the title “King Weir.”
Original Link: King Weir